bullet train whimsy

Every so often, I ponder trying to sell this idea. See, I have several opinions as to why the US can’t seem to get behind bullet trains, and they almost all boil down to public apathy of one form or another. There’s just not a push.

I am pretty certain that once somebody gets an effective train in action, others will come running. But an effective bullet train PR campaign is not going to be “just a faster commuter”. That doesn’t sell it, it just makes it more popular for those already using the train.

Solution: Disneyland to Disneyworld Express. The Magic Moving Kingdom.

It’s approximately 2500 miles from DL to DW. A bullet train travels at ~200 mph. That’s just over 12 hours from end to end — add half an hour if you want to stop in, say, New Orleans. Set your imagineers loose on the internals, but the basic deal is that this is primarily an overnighter that leaves each the park after the fireworks. Yes, that may mean arriving well after the welcome during the summer. Even in the winter… Disneyland in the winter closes at 8. If the train leaves at 9 (to allow everyone boarding to get through the gates) and it takes 13 hours PLUS allowing for time zones (four hours), that’s 2 pm EST for the DW arrival. Going the other way it’s a bit easier even though the fireworks start an hour later. Leave at 10, add 13 hours but SUBTRACT 4 for the time zones, and… yuck, it’s three hours before the park opens. Somehow I think this can be worked upon with a combination of adjusted speeds and start/end times.

Treat it solely as a tourist attraction at first. Then quietly point out to various businesses that for the same price as good airfare you can cross the nation in comfort — too bad it’s only to Orlando.

If Disney wanted to diversify, the next route is New York City to Orlando, this one with a couple of additional stops. Third either extends that leg to Chicago or runs the DL end up to Seattle. Add one or two more trains. One “daytripper” that starts from either end that leaves in the morning (nominally so you can get to the park before the closing parades and fireworks), and an “Opener Special” for west to east that’s mean to put you in Disney World in time to see the morning Welcome — with a balancer going back the other way, maybe.

But the seller, and the profitable proof of concept, is the Moving Magic. Once it’s in place, others will follow the mouse.


6 thoughts on “bullet train whimsy

  1. interesting post. Not likely to ever happen, but it’s an intriguiging concept – use of the Disney magic as the hook. Problem with high speed rail is that even where there is a market, like the east coast corridor, the best they can do is the Acela, which averages about 100 mph (2.66 hrs for 225 mile DC to NYC). That’s only a half hour better than the standard amtrak ride. I know there’s a lot of rail congestion in the corridor, but really, just a half hour better?

  2. First, that’s why I called it “whimsy”. Second, to your specifics.

    There are two significant reasons for the “slow” time of the Acela, and one secondary reason.

    Secondary first – six stops, each of approximately ten minutes apiece, between NYC and DC. Remove the stops and it’s 1.66 hours from DC to NYC, or ~135 miles per hour (instead of the 85 miles per hour of your example). That’s still slow, and the reasons are the primaries.

    Primary reason the first: infrastructure. The big and obvious is that many of the tracks need improved bedding for fast trains. Almost as obvious is the trains run though urban zones which have speed limits. Finally there are a LOT of legacy connection points that require slowing to pass through.

    Not on that route but the best example is the reason AMTRAK can’t do a straight shot from NYC to Seattle (or LA or…). Chicago has a massive switching yard (well, yards), and EVERY track runs through it. Picture an interstate that required you to exit, run through part of down-town (any town), then get back on the interstate to continue and you get some idea of the problem. Chicago is the largest example but far from the only such case.

    Second significant issue is political. Passenger trains do not have right of way. If they are not dead on their authorized schedule they have to allow freight to go first. Some freight gets bumped up even if passenger trains are on schedule.

    There are places where Acela goes ~30 mph because of all this. The amazement should not be that it’s so slow, it’s that it goes so fast!

    One of the reasons the whimsy is for Disney is that the Mouse could afford to build new and dedicated tracks. With Land to World the need to stop in all the intervening locations becomes, well, non-existent. Owning the tracks means they can make passenger trains the priority, and freight (slow OR fast) is what gets pushed to the side.

    But yes, it’s whimsy. It would cost roughly double what they would pay to build World (phases one and two) today. It would take about five, maybe ten years to pay off even renting access or running “businessman specials”. Barring it becoming a Top Dog’s dream, the delayed bottom line means NahGannaHappn.

    Whimsy. darnit.

  3. I agree with you on the reasons for the slowness, and understand it, but when the high speed is only about 20 mph faster than the regular amtrak, then it’s not really high speed. My point is that they can’t even build a decent high-speed road on the existing right of way where there is a demand. You can’t run a true high speed train on the existing corridor infrastructure. And there will be no investment in a dedicated right of way, for any number of reasons.

    That’s why I got tickled at your Disney suggestion. It’s an interesting concept. It’s different because it suggests that a private concern would build it for profit. Railroads were heavily subsidized throughout our history (Here, have a few million acres in perpetuity, and all the buffalo you can shoot. How about this prime lake front property? anything else we can do for you??) and still had trouble making money. However, there was a commitment by the government to build the infrastructure because it was good policy. Good public policy is in short supply nowadays.

    I rode commuter trains in Chicago regularly from 1984 until 2000. Burlington Northern, Rock Island, and Illinois Central. They don’t really slow down much through the yards. They slow down going into the terminals, as other trains are also moving in and out. The key, as you pointed out, is who has right of way. We’d occasionally get stuck by a freight, but it was very infrequent. The commuter rail had right of way during the day. By comparison, the VRE in northern VA sucks, as does the MARC in MD suburbs of DC. Both have service problems because of the right of way issues.

    • Actually, railroads weren’t so heavily subsidized after about 1940 or so. That’s part of their problem, of course.

      Government subsidizes transportation. It does so for a couple of reasons: commerce, and defense. (Well, there are other reasons as well, but those are the two big ones.) Airplanes and highways got the Big Deal from US government subsidies, and railroads lost. If railroads had kept even a quarter what highways got (much less the air transportation industry’s portion), we’d have a great transportation system.

      There are a lot of complexities on that simplicity, but it’s still the core. Every developed nation’s transportation system is subsidized (and controlled) by that nation’s government. The more the government puts into it, the better it is.

      The Disney idea is mainly a PR push. Governments act in reaction to a number of pushes, one of which is the public’s interest. This would create that push.

      • last comment, I swear… what is your total cost estimate? My initial thought is $1mil/mile, but that seems way too low for a project of this scale.

  4. Longwinded follows, but I think it’d end up around $10 million per mile — vicinity $25,000,000,000 ($25 Billion) total. That’s the US Government estimated cost (as of four years ago). Independent studies go as low as $5M per mile and as high as $85M per mile – and you can pretty well guess the way the group jumps by where the cost falls.

    Disney World cost an estimated $331M total for completion in 1973. Apply CPI for inflation and that’s $1.5Billion. This WOULD be more expensive, my earlier remark to the contrary.

    A major ‘trick’ would be the right-of-way purchases. Part of this would reflect the fun Disney had when buying land around Orlando – once everyone knows what’s happening the price goes nuts. On the other hand, by building it literally as an express (maybe with moderate speed spurs to places like New Orleans, requiring transfers at critical nodes) they don’t have to run through every commercial delivery point along the line. This in turn would allow them to counterbalance other right-of-way costs. It’d also allow them to select land that supported the rail rather than building piers for the swamps paralleling I-10 (just for one example).

    The biggest costs are crossing the Rockies, easily ten times the cost per mile of crossing the plains. I still think the AVERAGE total cost would be $10M per mile.


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